Nation left 'vulnerable' as ADF helps to deal with disasters

Australia’s armed forces are ‘stretched to the limit’ and are being diverted away from their main responsibilities, defence experts say.

Australian soldiers are being overused by the government to respond to situations that would ordinarily be within the remit of civilian agencies and governments.

This is leading to Australian Defence Force (ADF) staff being spread thin across the nation, as they work to help clean up after the devastating floods in Queensland and NSW while simultaneously helping to address key staff shortages across the aged care network.

ADF personnel are also helping Telstra restore communication services across some regions and numerous helicopter crews are on standby across the two states for search and rescue operations.

Read: ADF called in to save aged care sector ‘in crisis’

During the peak of the COVID pandemic, ADF members were staffing and operating the hotel quarantine system, guarding state borders and were also put in charge of the vaccine rollout.

Previously, in early 2020 before the pandemic began, ADF personnel had also been assisting with firefighting efforts in the horrific bushfire season of 2019-20.

Thousands of troops have been deployed in roles they would not ordinarily perform and military experts say Australia’s defences are suffering as a result.

“We’re in the third year now of extensive ADF assistance to emergencies and natural disasters,” Australian Defence Association (ADA) executive director Neil James told The Australian.

“We have had the bushfires, COVID-19, the aged care crisis and now these floods. The force is overstretched. Any time they get diverted to civil assistance tasks, it’s a diversion from their primary role, and that’s deterring wars.”

Read: Public hospitals in cycle of crisis, AMA warns

The use of the ADF to fill gaps in other civilian sectors represents a failure to properly fund and maintain those civilian institutions, critics argue.

In early 2020, as bushfires wreaked havoc across the country, $450 million was cut from disaster recovery funding for NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

During the fires, many local fire services complained about a lack of trucks and equipment to fight the fires, as well as a lack of professional firefighters.

After the fires subsided in January 2020, COVID emerged in March, putting immense pressure on state hospital systems.

Years of funding cuts to the public health service meant there were fewer doctors and nurses on hand and, once again, the ADF was sent in to help.

Read: Lessons we can learn from Omicron

Australia’s residential aged care facilities felt the full force of COVID, with almost 10,000 cases recorded across all care homes, resulting in almost 4000 deaths.

But in 2018, just two years before COVID arrived, more than $1.2 billion was stripped from the aged care sector in the Federal Budget.

There have been suggestions the ADF should form a dedicated disaster-recovery division for times such as these, but experts say the real answer lies in properly funding state emergency services.

“There’s this belief that the ADF should be instantly available everywhere to do no matter what’s asked for it. It just can’t be done,” Mr James says.

“The idea that we should have a dedicated natural disaster force, just on permanent standby, falls into a heap for the simple reason that we’ve already got them in the state emergency services.

“And they have trouble recruiting enough people.”

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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